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6 helpful reminders for the overwhelmed person

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One maddening tendency of any small electronic device is that whenever the battery is low, it wastes most of its remaining power beeping and flashing to tell you that battery is low.

Similarly, the human body comes with many self-defeating features. For example, whenever you’re low on oxygen, say while trying to recover your electronic device from the bottom of a public pool, the body goes into panic mode, raises the heart rate and burns away what little oxygen you have to work with.

The mind exhibits this kind of foolishness too. In has a cruel habit of misplacing its wisdom whenever you need it most. There are certain truths I really need to remember when I’m in a panicky state, which is exactly the time they are hardest to remember. So you may want to bookmark these gentle reminders, because the next time you’re overwhelmed you will never remember them.

1. The sky has fallen a thousand times already

I can’t count the number of times my world has ended. At least several dozen times in my life I’ve found myself in a situation so tangled and hopeless that I could not believe I would ever be happy again. Somehow, during each of those personal apocalypses, I forget that each of the previous ones somehow worked themselves out and are no longer relevant. Yet in real-time, the current catastrophe always seems to promise the death or at least permanent disfigurement of my entire life, and I crumple into despair and indignation. If only I could remember that almost all of the problems I’ve ever had are currently solved except the two or three most recent developments. This is just the way life moves along. It is my problems that are always marching to the gallows, not me.

I’m sure your sky has fallen many times before too. The overwhelmed mind underestimates the scale of a human life and therefore over-calculates the ultimate importance of any particular problem. Don’t be fooled.

2. Your problems are the same problems human beings have always had

You will never end up finding a way to suffer that hasn’t been fully explored yet. Heartbreak, death of loved ones, sickness and old age, chronic pain, shame, addiction, failure, poverty, and introspective nightmares are all realms that have been braved by people consistently and exhaustively for thousands of years, and to degrees much worse than yours. There are ultimately only a few basic kinds of human trouble, and they’ve all been suffered and confronted before.

Humankind’s vast experience with suffering is an asset to every one of us, because for every classic human problem there is a world of literature about the best ways to deal with it that other humans have found, and it’s never been easier to get access to this wisdom.

3. Being overwhelmed comes from a breakdown of your thoughts about your life, not a breakdown of your life

The feeling of being overwhelmed creates a convincing illusion. It makes you think everything is happening at once, but that’s not really possible. While different conditions of your life situation can happen concurrently — say your debts are in collections at the same time your relationship is falling apart — life still only unfolds one moment at a time, and it’s quite rare that you need to do more than one small thing in any given moment. Each issue might demand that you deal with a number of difficult moments, but as a rule you only need to deal physically with one particular moment at a time. The “everything is happening at once” feeling is a mental phenomenon that doesn’t reflect the linear way in which concurrent life problems actually unfold.

Thoughts change over much more quickly than life’s actual happenings do, and so in one minute of worried thinking you can experience a dozen problems mentally. It’s easy to get lost in this abstract realm, thinking that there’s too much happening “at once” to possibly know what to do, but when you’re ready to actually deal with a problem in the physical world, you can safely ignore the others for the moment it takes to act on one of them.

4. It is mathematically unlikely that your problems are as bad as you think they are

Most people seem to be pessimists. I certainly have that tendency and I’m slowly re-calibrating toward the optimistic side. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not hard to understand why we tend toward catastrophizing our setbacks. If you run from every snake just because it may be a deadly one, then you’re less likely to die by snakebite, even though 85% of the time you are running from a creature that ought to be running from you. Pessimistic tendencies may aid self-preservation overall, across a lifetime of ambiguous situations, but this comes at the cost of increased stress and a lot of unnecessary running from things.

To know you are a pessimist is to know that things are generally better than they appear to be. A pessimistic mind will usually create a mental image of the situation that’s much more dangerous and difficult to address than it ultimately will be in real life.

And for many of us, we’re not talking about slight exaggerations of the seriousness of our challenges. On the many occasions in which I realized I may have made a mistake at work, usually it expands quickly to certainty that I have made a mistake, that I will be found out and fired, and that I will never work in this industry again. Within a half a minute I’m suffering a mental movie of myself pounding the pavement on a gloomy day, handing resumes out to fast food managers. If this mental reflex sounds familiar — and if you’re overwhelmed often, it probably is — you are likely a pessimist, and you can almost depend on the situation turning out to be easier to deal with than you initially imagined.

5. Things change pretty quickly when you start doing things instead of thinking so much

The darkness in the overwhelmed person’s mind comes from the feeling of helplessness, and helplessness comes from the belief that nothing you do matters. Although this feeling is common, it is almost never true. However bad the external circumstances actually get, they are probably not quite Auschwitz, and even there you would be able to fall back on Viktor Frankl’s great discovery — that nobody can take away your freedom to choose your way of relating to your circumstances. Wherever you are, you can do something to make the rest of the day better than it would otherwise be, and that means you are not helpless. No matter how small the action, once you see you are capable of improving your position, the feeling of helplessness cannot survive unless you want it to.

Overwhelm is an affliction of messy thoughts rather than messy circumstances, and this becomes clearer when you start acting on the circumstances. Repeatedly throughout my life, a hellish day becomes bearable the moment I make a dent in just one of my dilemmas. It spoils the mirage of total catastrophe, and makes it hard to remain a passive participant in your bad day.

6. It is most tempting to not do things when you most need to do things

Another self-defeating habit of the normal human mind. There is a tendency to freeze when things feel like they’re going off the rails, for two reasons.

The first reason is that you are afraid to make things worse. The ground feels shaky everywhere, and in your apparent stupor of incompetence you don’t want to step in the wrong place. But the bigger reason is that by making a decision to do something you are deciding to take responsibility for where you are, and that’s not a natural reflex for most of us. Particularly when you believe your problem is someone else’s fault, it’s tempting to wait for the person responsible to actually be a responsible person. That doesn’t usually happen, and often I’m mistaken about who is at fault anyway. I know I always want it to be someone else’s fault, and I don’t think I’m unusual there. Believing another party is responsible is tempting because it lets you fantasize about a deus ex machina ending to your crisis, the timely swooping-in of the cavalry, which makes for a lame movie because it makes a fool of the protagonist, and never really happens in real life anyway.

Defy the temptation to cross your arms and wait for some form of cosmic justice to save you — or at least remember that you will feel a temptation to do nothing, right when you should probably be doing something.


Photo by John Lambert Pearson

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John October 6, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Always beneficial to put things into perspective. I had a funny revelation today. Two of my favorite sports teams lost. I was pretty fired up/annoyed that this had happened. After a few minutes of venting I realized that this was the hardest part of my day, dealing with my sports teams losing. I think it’s a human tendency to always wish things would just go my way dammit! Every thing. I realized how foolish I was being. I had three meals today, was watching a game and listening to another on the radio. How many people are starving in the world right now? How many don’t even have access to clean drinking water? Being grounded with these thoughts made me think to myself, “Shut the hell up! If this is the worst thing you have to worry about on a Sunday, you have a pretty great life!”

Karen J October 7, 2013 at 3:50 am

Oh yes, John!
“Such first world problems!” (said with a grin, to myself) is a good crowbar to get myself out of that quagmire.
I regularly find myself going round-and-round-and-round-and-round with my various situations. Call Somebody! also helps –

Miss Growing Green October 7, 2013 at 9:41 am

Agreed John! Throughout my life I’ve experienced mildly stressful periods, and highly stressful ones. The natural tendency is to treat your biggest stress at the time (not matter how small it may be comparatively to others’ or others you’ve had in the past) and treat it as Life Crisis #1. Keeping things in constant perspective is key.

David October 6, 2013 at 11:23 pm

I too watched Romo throw that interception today and had to fight not to cry

John October 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm

That was one of the games I was referring to!

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:19 pm

And… Houston?

John October 7, 2013 at 10:29 pm

St. Louis Cardinals. But they won today, the ying and yang of the world. Game 5! Woot woot!

Jardley October 7, 2013 at 12:25 am

Time and time again I witness in my life what you wrote in #4, and often the outcome or reaction is leaps and bounds opposite to what I expected. But, there is still very much that part of me that believes that by this thinking of the harshest scariest reaction is helping it to not happen, that if I made the conscious effort of switching to thinking the outcome won’t be so bad, it’ll most certainly turn out horribly. So I become afraid of going against that.

I suspect this mode of thinking is trying to keep me from changing the way I think.

Has anyone else thought this way?

Donna October 7, 2013 at 5:15 am

Yes! And it’s almost as though by clinging to the worst case scenario that we convince ourselves that we won’t get ambushed by any nasty surprises.
I am trying so hard to to train myself to think along different lines, to ask myself when the catastrophic thinking strikes, ‘do you REALLY, genuinely think xyz is going to happen/is REALLY a terminal disease/that your loved one is lying to you’ etc etc and the answer is unfailingly NO, with just an insidious hint of ‘oh but what if…’ remaining. It’s a struggle, but I like to think I’m less crazy than I used to be :)

Gustavo October 7, 2013 at 11:21 am

I also fall into that kind of thinking now and then, but I found it somehow useful: once I face the worst case scenario and I learn to live with it, I immediately feel free from the burden (like touching bottom), and then I have the energy to really deal with the problem.

Nitya October 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Spot on! I think it actually pays to think along the lines of the worst possible outcome and taking measures to prevent it happening. By and large people seem to be far too optimistic, thinking that things will play to their advantage, when in fact, the wiser move would be to prepare for an unfavourable occurrence.
If you’re wrong and things turn out in your favour after all, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. A bit counterintuitive I suppose, but thinking and acting this way keeps me in a cheerful state of mind.

Ali October 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I see what you’re getting at here, Gustavo. When I was a member of a semi-professional sports team one of our coaches took us through a stepped “what if” exercise, where we visualised things not going our way and how we would deal with them. In this exercise, the hypothetical absolute “worst” thing that happened was that we lost every game by a large margin, and our way of dealing with it was to continue to play to the best of our ability anyway and enjoy the sport for its own sake. This is very much a “first world” example, but it was great to experience how breaking down a feared event and really imagining how you would feel about it could make it seem so much less scary. I have used this same technique in “real life” situations when I’ve felt overwhelmed and panicky, and it has helped. I think the key is not just to consider the worst possible outcome, but to come up with positive ways in which you would react to it.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I have found that most of the time, thinking about negative outcomes makes me do worse at everything, and makes me miserable throughout the experience. But there is something to be said for the carefully controlled visualization of bad outcomes. I’ve written about this — although it was a long time ago (https://www.raptitude.com/2009/05/how-to-be-grateful-when-you-dont-feel-like-it/)

I’d like to write about it again sometime.

JB October 7, 2013 at 2:41 am

Excellent points especially No. 6. The not doing of things that should be done is what leads to my feelings of being overwhelmed 99% of the time.

BrownVagabonder October 7, 2013 at 3:25 am

I totally agree with this post – especially the point about being overwhelmed comes from your thoughts, not from the event specifically. We are all drama-queens in a way – we all believe that our lives are harder than anyone else we know personally. We all exaggerate the problems and issues that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. But in reality, our life is simple if we let it be. For me, remembering that the whole world is an illusion (a hologram of sorts with us being wisps of energy and smoke) and I will not care about the specific problem even in 10 days, let alone a year, really helps me keep things in perspective.

DiscoveredJoys October 7, 2013 at 3:39 am

My equivalent to ‘the sky has already fallen a thousand times’ is ‘in 500 years we are all dust’, i.e. a temporary drama is not that important.

Another tactic I employ is simply to smile when anything goes wrong or appears to be going wrong, or I remember something going wrong. It is less easy to spiral down into overwhelm if you smile. Even if it is sometimes a wry smile.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm

I make use of that one too, as well as its shorter-term cousin: Will this really matter a year from now?

But the “everything returns to dust” aphorism is extremely powerful. It allows us to finally let go of the idea of anything having absolute importance.

Rob October 7, 2013 at 7:02 am

Thank you. Exactly what I needed to read as I sit here awfulizing and procrastinating over my day’s work.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Monday is a popular day for awfulization.

Heidi October 7, 2013 at 7:39 am

This is precisely what I need to hear right now. Thank you.

Nathan October 7, 2013 at 7:40 am

Nice post. I have thought about these remedies from time to time myself. But I found the problem doesn’t lie in being aware of your own mode of thinking and then the subsequent thought that will surpress the current manifestation. The problem is altering your natural default setting so that you can be free. As Albert Camus once stated “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal”. I tend to think people who are naturally curious and thinkers, which is most likely a lot of the readers here, also expend tremendous energy.

monika October 7, 2013 at 7:54 am

Your thoughts came to me inbox at the exact moment when they were needed the most. Thank you!

PianoManGidley October 7, 2013 at 7:57 am

#5 is one that I really need to work on. So much of the time when I get depressed, I end up thinking about how we’re all going to die eventually anyway and the universe won’t care, so why should we even bother being alive? I become existentially depressed and hopeless because I refuse to focus back in on a smaller picture to appreciate the current moment for everything it holds.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Too much thinking! It’s amazing how quickly we begin to time-travel in our heads when we’re upset.

Jacq October 7, 2013 at 8:11 am

Thank you so much I fucking needed this

I was just feeling suicidal on my commute home over some work I had to do

It isn’t as bad as I think

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm


Aje October 7, 2013 at 8:28 am

I want to share something that happened. I was driving along when a car trying to pull out had to brake sharply because the car in front of me didn’t give him way like he expected\was trying to force his way in. Seeing this (and as i was in a generous good – due to having a good day) I decided to give way. I slowed my car, gestured with my hand that I was giving way and the guy shot off, to catch up the car that hadn’t given him way, flashed his lights and raised a finger or two in the air before turning off.
All this time I drove behind him and realised I had witness ‘glass half full’. He could have thanked me but instead decided he wanted to tell the other driver to ***** off. Choices we make.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Heh. Poor guy.

Grace October 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

Talk about timely advice. I was dreading the week and feeling hopelessly overwhelmed. I needed this perspective. Thank you!

Maru October 7, 2013 at 8:55 am

Simplemente, excelente :)

Gustavo October 7, 2013 at 11:11 am

De acuerdo.

Randy October 7, 2013 at 10:07 am

Dude…this is definitely the blog of the day! Perfect for Monday morning. I’ve got many more to read but nothing will top this for inspiration! Peace…

Ragnar October 7, 2013 at 10:23 am

I spent many years in said position… arms crossed, waiting for someone to forcefully alter my dull and repetitious life that was slowly driving me crazy. It wasn’t until I realized that it was something I was doing to myself, that I actually started to see some changes.

All the points are valid, and easy to understand.. yet harder to fully grasp. I feel like you have to teach yourself to keep going, by actually doing so. If you make yourself aware that if you keep working, smarter and harder than ever before, things will change, then you run out of excuses to make.

Edward October 7, 2013 at 11:50 am

Nice!! A variation (sort of) in point #6 is the old adage “revenge is best served cold”. Which should be interpreted to mean that a kneejerk reaction to any situation is probably not the best course of action. I’m constantly amazed lately how people can read one small thing on the Internet (or see it on the news), fly off into an instant immediate indignant rage, and how quickly an Internet mob forms around the outrage. It’s like they’re not even thinking anymore or waiting for facts to come out. …Or even taking the time to mentally digest what just happened. Going berserk on first impression emotions is not healthy.

Tim October 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Excellent summary on the issue. Just two little pieces to expand on:

#4 – Keep in mind this reaction is totally normal. Your mind constantly leaves the present state to imagine horrible future event in order to prepare you in the event it does occur. Basically imagining your spouse dying is horrible, but if the event does occur, that initial pain helps you cope with the actual event. So while this is sometimes helpful, you have to keep the actual odds in mind.

#6 – Another version of this is to lash out based on your initial emotional state…even when you are literally dumber (ie: you can measure the IQ drop) when you get overly emotional. So the trick is to NEVER do the first thing that comes into your mind when you are upset. Calm down and then decide. I’m not saying this isn’t hard, but it says eating a lot of crow later.

David Cain October 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm

There is some benefit to consciously imagining bad outcomes, but I think we should be careful not to rationalize compulsive negative thinking. I’m convinced most of it is destructive.

I do imagine my losing my friends and family on a regular basis, as a part of a gratitude exercise. It can create a transcendent experience. https://www.raptitude.com/2011/09/you-and-your-friends-are-all-going-to-die-and-thats-beautiful/

Georgina October 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm

A wonderful post. It is one that I shall have to read every day until it can become a thoughtfulness habit. Thank you very much.

Thomas Eichberger October 7, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Very good article:-)

Louise Altman @The Intentional Workplace October 7, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Perfect as someone wrote – especially for a Monday morning. I’d say any morning because unless we set out intentionally every morning to approach the day “present” and setting a pace and tone to carry with us, it is easy to get sucked in the mania vortex that is the average workplace and highway in today’s world. I’ve often written about the role of the 24/7 availability people allow themselves with technology and with their employers. There’s also the “busy trap,” that is easy to get addicted to. As you’ve said before, there is always something to “get done.”

And here’s the key, as you wrote, “that nobody can take away your freedom to choose your way of relating to your circumstances. Wherever you are, you can do something to make the rest of the day better than it would otherwise be, and that means you are not helpless.”

Enjoyed this piece -thanks!

Janet October 7, 2013 at 10:25 pm

#5 for me….

Jenni October 7, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Thanks for this, really enjoyed reading it. Number 6 is the big one for me, I can lose sleep over problems and still refuse to do anything about them but usually, as you noted, even making a small dent in the pile of crap makes me feel better. Oh but it is so hard to start to make even that small dent.

Andy October 8, 2013 at 2:52 pm

David, I want to thank you for this article and all the other stuff here too. I stumbled across the site a little while ago and thanks to you found and fell in love with ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’. Your ‘falling sky’ analogy is superb and when I got to the ‘pessimist’ bit earlier I laughed out loud. Today I made a stupid error at work which will probably earn me a metaphorical wrist slap from my boss and little more, but until I arrived here was convinced the world had ended.

Thank you for raising my spirits and a smile, I needed that. Keep up the good work my friend, rest assured that your insights are just as relevant in England as on your side of ‘The Pond’.

mandy January 31, 2014 at 3:46 pm

well said!!!! Im so glad I found this site too, everybody can learn so much from this amazing man. May it continue for years to come

Daneen October 9, 2013 at 8:57 pm

David, I always enjoy reading your articles . You have great insight and you defiantly help put things into perspective. I have been worrying a lot about my son and have been feeling stressed out. I have been very pro active and doing a lot of research and putting things into place to help him with the problems he is having. I am still stressed. I think it’s because I feel out of control and I want to solve my sons problems right now but I need to relax and realize that it’s going to time for the problems to be resolved. I need to let go and be patient.

Jacki October 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Just stumbled on your blog because I just started a blog and I wanted to see the competition. Apparently, it is fierce. Your writing is fantastic. Glad to see this blog is so popular. What is so great about a blog (and the reason I decided to start one) is the accountability. Even if you wanted to slide back into default consumerism guy at this point, you have thousands of people here who have validated this you. You’re a little stuck, in a good way. I wonder if you feel that way?

Thanks for the inspiration!

JayP October 13, 2013 at 8:57 pm

What a well written and insightful article! Thinking about #5, I am reminded of a book I have been reading about how the mind works. Apparently the act of being busy also increases overall happiness levels, yet another reason to act when feeling overwhelmed. It works for me. Being in a fairly tenuous job loss situation(with time on my hands) I feel much better when productively staining the deck, exercising, or any other mundane activities that produce some feeling of accomplishment. Personally, a mundane physical activity actually provides a sharpened focus time for my thoughts – and any conclusions always seem to slant much more toward more action oriented decisions.

Herb October 18, 2013 at 4:36 am

Hi David,

everytime I read something you wrote, it always feels like you know exactly what’s going on in the deepest and darkest spots of my heart and soul.

It’s like this blog was specifically prepared for me by someone who knew exactly what I would think and feel during the course my life and what problems I would be confronted with. (That’s scary in a way.)

It’s like your texts connect directly into my brain, profoundly addressing the few “problem”-causing neurons and telling them how to do their jobs properly.

It works every time, thank you! I hope your blog works like this for many other people, too!

And congratulations on quitting your job and having the courage to follow your passion! :)

Regards from Germany!

CD October 23, 2013 at 7:51 am

Ah! This is so helpful:
“To know you are a pessimist is to know that things are generally better than they appear to be.”

Even in the throes of awfulizing (like someone else here said), I can at least know that it is probably better than I think it is. I can see how that would help me dig myself out. Thank you!

Sebastian October 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Most of these can be solved by meditating. Our minds can cause chaos in our lives if we do not control and a lot of these occurrences are because we lose control of our minds.

Other than that, I liked the one that says to remember that thousands of people have gone through this already. It’s so true.

Personally, what I do when I hit a low point in my life is to tell myself the following: “I’m going to respond to this event the best way possible, so next time I’m walking through hell, I can look back and do the same.”

Kristine November 18, 2013 at 6:10 am

Some people just tend to have it in their nature to be easily overwhelmed. I am one of them, and looking at my mother I have a clear sense that this attribute is passed down the genetic line. Today I watched an episode of my favourite show, where I know a key character dies. I should be writing a report, going to the gym, returning some curtains that were too short for my bedroom window.. all sorts of things I should be doing. Thinking of them stresses me out.

But my mind knows me well enough to let me watch this episode without becoming completely stressed out. Because this episode makes me cry, rather a lot, it makes me so very sad, but most importantly, it reminds me that life is so incredibly much larger than my computer screen. I feel, I cry, I sort of connect myself to the world that is a reality for all people at some point and frequency, and I reflect on I would tackle it if my world turned completely to shambles. It´s a strange thing, but it sort of wiers me back into what life is, and what it is not.

I don´t know if this make absolutely no sense to anyone else, and this is not a depressive and destructive thing. It´s just a way I have of, well, getting over myself, I think.

David Cain November 18, 2013 at 12:51 pm

I think it is more a matter of practice and conditioning than some kind of unchangeable personal nature. Many of our similarities to our parents are not genetic but simply learned from our most influential teachers. I am convinced that emotional reactivity is a habit that can be unlearned by retraining certain triggers. I’ve made a night-and-day difference by reframing my thinking about being overwhelmed.

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